Developing a botanical demonstration garden within the Desert Biome

April 22, 2021

South Africa has nine regional ecosystems with a distinct grouping of vegetation and animals that have adapted to a specific climate. These are divided into biomes, namely Grassland, Savanna, Succulent Karoo, Nama-Karoo, Forest, Fynbos, Albany Thicket, Desert and Indian Ocean Coastal Belt.

The ten national botanical gardens in South Africa represent seven of the nine biomes. There is no national botanical garden in the Indian Ocean Coastal Belt Biome and the Desert Biome. The Desert Biome, south of South Africa’s southern border with Namibia, extends from Onseepkans and Pofadder in the east to Alexander Bay in the west, and includes parts of the Richtersveld National Park. 

Map Richtersveld: the Botanical Garden is located in the Desert Biome area (light green) in the Northern part of the Richtersveld, on the border to Namibia.

Instead of establishing new national botanical gardens in these two biomes, opportunities exist to partner and collaborate with existing government or parastatal agencies that manage protected conservation areas representative of these two biomes. More specifically, South African National Parks (SANParks) that manages the Richtersveld National Park in the Desert Biome. 

Areas identified in these biomes would become botanical demonstration gardens accessible to the public, but not classified as national botanical gardens. The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI) that manages national botanical gardens would enter into a formal agreement with the institution hosting the area designated as a botanical demonstration garden.

The Richtersveld National Park is the South-African part of the ǀAi-ǀAis/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, a Peace Park spanning the border between South Africa and Namibia. Most of the South African part of the park forms part of the buffer zone of the Richtersveld Cultural and Botanical Landscape World Heritage Site. The Richtersveld comprises of a unique landscape. It is home to a number of unusual plants, many of which are found nowhere else on earth. This environment requires very particular care taking. 


The Haemanthus coccineus, also commonly known as April’s Fool or Skeerkwas flowers in late summer and autumn. (Image: Oscar Osberg)

Preserving and caring for the environment is crucial in saving South Africa’s biodiversity. The aim of the GEF-5 PA Project was to protect the biodiversity of South Africa from existing and emerging threats of degradation while improving land use and economic development of existing communities. Developing the botanical demonstration garden in the Richtersveld National Park falls within that scope. SANParks and SANBI are the implementing agencies. 

The Richtersveld Desert Botanical Gardens and the nursery represent the whole Richtersveld bioregion, which includes the Tsau ||Khaeb (Sperrgebiet) National Park, Richtersveld Municipal Area and the |Ai-|Ais Game Park and surrounding. 


Bulbine vitrea (Image: Pieter van Wyk)

Volenti van der Westhuizen, one of the field rangers of the GEF-PA Project has been seconded to the Richtersveld National Park Nursery. She is being trained as part of a team involved in establishing the botanical demonstration garden in Sendelingsdrif. According to Pieter van Wyk, nursery and herbarium curator at the |Ai-|Ais/Richtersveld Transfrontier Park, Volenti shows good potential towards management of certain aspects of the programme.  “The GEF-5 PA Project has been a massive help, providing Volenti as an assistant for the botanical gardens” he said. 


The R
ichtersveld nursery team. Pieter van Wyk (top row) and Volenti van der Westhuizen (2nd from right) with their colleagues. (Image: supplied)  

The in-house training includes nursery and basic horticulture management with an emphasis on propagation, pest control and landscaping. The team has also been trained in law enforcement, permit control and monitoring and conserving South Africa’s threatened plant species, as part of SANBI’s Custodians of Rare and Endangered Wildflowers (CREW) Programme.


Conophytum jucundum subsp. marlothii (Image: Pieter van Wyk)

Pieter, who grew up in the Richtersveld, explained that the nursery work requires scientific background in horticulture, plant ecology, and vegetation ecology and plant taxonomy. It also requires skills of ‘botanical keying’ (identification of plants) to be able to work in the Richtersveld National Park Field Herbarium and to be able to label plants in the gardens. 

The project is also involved with the South African Police Service (SAPS) and receives poached plants from SAPS, as well as rescue plants from destruction sites. Lots of plants are specifically endemic to the region and many are at risk and in need of protection. Hence sound knowledge of the different environmental laws is necessary. 


Vyftienmylseberg in the Klein Duin Section of the Richtersveld National Park. (Oscar Osberg)

The Vyftienmylseberg (485 metres above sea level) within the Klein Duin Section of the Richtersveld National Park has a very particular climate in terms of temperature, mist and rain fall that only appears in that area and allows certain plants to grow. When the derelict  fence was removed and replaced with a new high quality game fence as part of the GEF-5 PA Project, many of the plants were rescued from the disturbed area over the mountain. Field rangers from the GEF-5 PA Project helped to transfer the plants to the northern region of the garden. “The plants took on well and are growing happily at the moment,” said Pieter.


SANParks rangers on a rescue mission to preserve local plants. (Image supplied) 


Tylecodon rediculatus, also known as Sifkopkandelaar in good shape at the nursery. (Image: Oscar Osberg)

Sendelingsdrif is a border post between Namibia and South Africa in the Richtersveld. The Sendelingsdrif tourist facilities were opened in 2007 to enable tourists and locals to travel between Namibia and South Africa within the boundaries of the park. The nursery is quickly becoming a tourism attraction with most visitors passing through for information. This is an important opportunity for marketing the Richtersveld landscape, and making people aware of conservation. 

 The gardens are already open to the public, while 5.5 ha of the garden are still being developed further. Staff is working with 55 000m2 garden beds. Currently 26 garden beds display 26 different vegetation types of the area. The taxonomic garden displays the largest plant families and also serves taxonomical research and revision of plant groups. The edible and medicinal garden includes controlled harvesting to benefit the community. It is also used for educational purposes. It teaches the Nama names of plants to preserve the language and culture. 


Display of plants in the nursery. (Image: Oscar Osberg)

SANBI plans to have a formal opening of the botanical demonstration garden later this year, 2021. A five year development plan will also be compiled this year. The development of the garden takes time as it spans over a large area and involves very specific care taking. And some of the plants grow very slowly. 

The GEF-5 PA Project has helped to lay a solid foundation to promote the representation of the Desert Biome and the unique landscape of the Richtersveld. The importance of Protected Area Management cannot be stressed enough in combating the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats. In the Richtersveld, the Vyftienmylseberg sections are of the most important areas to protect. Pieter explained that this is the only area that is properly protected with fences. “This needs to be continued. We are losing biodiversity every single day,” he said.


Volenti van der Westhuizen at the newly built fence protecting the Klein Duin section. (Image: Oscar Osberg)

For a feature article on ‘amateur’ botanist Pieter van Wyk and his knowledge about the specialised and diverse plants of the Richtersveld, click here:


Aloe melanacantha, also commonly known as Krimvarkie Aalwyn and Black-thorn Aloe. (Image: Oscar Osberg)